Getting rid of excess belly fat, or abdominal fat is a common goal for many.
While maintaining moderate body weight and body fat percentage is important for good health, the type of belly fat you store can influence your health differently.
The two main types are:
Visceral refers to fat surrounding the liver and other abdominal organs. Having high levels of visceral fat is associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
On the other hand, subcutaneous is the layer of fat that sits directly under the skin. This type is less harmful to health and serves as a layer of protection for your organs as well as insulation to regulate body temperature.
That said, having a high amount of subcutaneous fat is linked with a higher amount of visceral fat, therefore increasing your risk of health problems. Focusing on a health-promoting lifestyle, which helps prevent excessive amounts of both types of fat, is important.
Here are 11 factors that can contribute to the development of excess belly fat.
1. Sugary foods and beverages
Many people consume more added sugar daily than they realize.
Common foods in the diet that can be high in added sugar can include baked goods, pastries, muffins, flavored yogurts, breakfast cereals, granola and protein bars, prepackaged foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and other processed foods.
In particular, a diet high in sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., sodas, specialty coffees, fruit juices, energy drinks) is associated with increased visceral abdominal fat.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest contributor to sugar intake in the United States primarily due to their low cost, convenience, and ease of consumption. Unlike food, sugar-sweetened beverages can be consumed quickly in large volumes since they require minimal processing.
As a result, you experience a large intake of calories and sugar, with little to no nutritional value, in a single sitting. For many, it’s not uncommon to consume multiple sugar-sweetened beverages in a single day.
For example, drinking two 16 fluid ounce (480 mL) bottles of soda in a day adds up to 384 calories and 104 grams of sugar. This, especially if consumed in addition to many other high-sugar food and drinks, can lead to excessive calorie intake in a day and, ultimately, excess visceral fat.
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Furthermore, drinking your calories — particularly from sugar-sweetened beverages — can lead to a temporary spike in blood sugar followed by a crash, leading to you feeling hungry quickly and needing to drink or eat soon again.
Though some claim the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in sugar-sweetened beverages is the main contributor to visceral fat, most research suggests that HFCS and regular sugar (sucrose) both lead to weight gain similarly — i.e., by providing excessive calories — rather than playing a unique role in fat storage.
While all foods and drinks can be enjoyed in moderation, it’s best to limit sugar-sweetened food and beverages to special occasions. Instead, opt for water, unsweetened coffee/tea, and whole, minimally processed foods most often.
Summary: A diet high in added sugars, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages, may increase belly fat. Most often, stick with water, and unsweetened coffee/tea, and eat a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods.
Alcohol can have both healthful and harmful effects.
When consumed in moderate amounts, especially red wine, it is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
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However, high alcohol intake may lead to inflammation, liver disease, certain types of cancer, excess weight gain, and many other health problems.
Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men or avoiding alcohol completely.
Additionally, excessive alcohol consumption is associated with greater visceral fat accumulation and a higher body mass index (BMI).
It’s thought that alcohol contributes to belly fat and overall weight gain in a few ways:
- Alcohol contains a high number of calories (7 calories per gram).
- Many alcoholic beverages are high in sugar.
- Alcohol may increase appetite and decrease inhibitions, leading to greater overall calorie intake.
- Alcohol may lead to poorer judgment, resulting in greater consumption of less nutritious foods.
- It may alter hormones related to hunger and fullness.
- It may decrease fat oxidation, which may spare stored fat. Though more research is needed.
- It may increase cortisol, which promotes abdominal fat storage.
- A person may be less inclined to be physically active the day of and after drinking.
- Alcohol leads to poorer sleep quality, which is associated with greater BMI and fat storage.
A recent review of 127 studies found a significant dose-dependent relationship between alcohol consumption and abdominal fat storage.
Other studies have also shown a high alcohol intake (2–3 drinks or more per day) is linked to weight gain including abdominal obesity, especially in men.
If you choose to drink, aim for no more than 1–2 drinks per day.
Summary: High alcohol consumption (greater than two drinks per day) is associated with weight gain and belly fat.
3. Trans fats
Trans fats are among the unhealthiest fats.
While small amounts of trans fat occur in nature, they’re mainly created for the food system by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats to make them more stable and allow them to be solid at room temperature.
Trans fats are often used in baked products and packaged foods as a cheap — yet effective — replacement for butter, lard, and higher-cost items.
Artificial trans fats have been shown to cause inflammation, which can lead to insulin resistance, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and various other diseases. However, ruminant trans fats, which are found naturally in dairy and meat products, do not have the same negative health effects.
The American Heart Association recommends severely limiting or completely avoiding artificial trans fats. Many countries, including the United States and Canada, have banned the use of trans fats in food products due to their adverse effects on health.
Though it’s thought that trans fat may also contribute to visceral fat — and has been attributed to poor health over recent decades — there’s little recent research on the topic.
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Even with many countries having taken steps to limit or ban the use of artificial trans fats in the food supply, it’s important to still check the nutrition label if you’re unsure.
Summary: Artificial trans fats are strongly linked with poor heart health and may also lead to increased belly fat. Both the US and Canada have banned trans fats in commercial foods.
4. Sedentary lifestyle and physical inactivity
A sedentary lifestyle is one of the biggest risk factors for negative health events. It involves prolonged sitting throughout the day (e.g., watching TV, sitting at a work desk, long commutes, playing video games, etc.).
Even if a person is physically active, meaning they engage in physical labor or exercise, prolonged sitting may increase the risk of negative health events and weight gain.
Additionally, research indicates that the majority of children and adults do not meet the recommended physical activity guidelines. In fact, up to 80% of adults do not meet the recommended aerobic and resistance training recommendations outlined in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
This was demonstrated in a landmark survey in the United States that found that there was a significant increase in physical inactivity, weight, and waist circumference in men and women from 1988–2010, suggesting Americans are increasingly becoming less active.
To further highlight the negative effect limited activity has on the body, both physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle have been associated with a direct increase in both visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat.
Fortunately, engaging in regular physical activity and limiting sitting during the day can lower your risk of increased abdominal fat while supporting weight management.
In one study, researchers reported that people who performed resistance or aerobic exercise for 1 year after losing weight were able to prevent regaining visceral fat, while those who did not exercise had a 25–38% increase in belly fat.
Another study showed that those who sat for over 8 hours each day (not including sleeping hours) had a 62% increased risk of obesity compared with those who sat for less than 4 hours each day.
It’s recommended that most adults aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity) each week and engage in regular resistance training.
Further, try to limit sedentary behaviors and prolonged sitting. If sitting is part of your work, try to incorporate “standing breaks” every 30–90 minutes by standing for 5–10 minutes or taking a quick walk around your office, home or neighborhood.
Summary: A sedentary lifestyle and physical inactivity are associated with several health risks, including weight gain and increased abdominal fat. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week.
5. Low protein diet
Consuming adequate dietary protein can support weight management.
High protein diets may promote weight loss and prevent weight gain by increasing fullness since protein takes longer to digest compared to other macronutrients. Protein also supports muscle repair and growth, which contributes to a higher metabolism and more calories burned at rest.
Several studies suggest that people who consume the highest amount of protein are the least likely to have excess belly fat.
Interestingly, a recent 2021 study in older men with limited mobility showed protein consumption greater than the RDA (>0.8g/kg/d) was associated with greater reductions in visceral abdominal fat compared with those who only met or consumed below the RDA for protein.
To increase your protein intake, try to include a high-quality protein source at each meal and snack, such as lean meat, poultry, tofu, eggs, beans, and lentils.
Summary: High protein intake is associated with lower abdominal fat and moderate body weight.
Gaining belly fat during menopause is extremely common.
At puberty, the hormone estrogen signals the body to begin storing fat on the hips and thighs in preparation for a potential pregnancy. This subcutaneous fat isn’t harmful from a health standpoint, although it can be difficult to lose in some cases.
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Menopause officially occurs one year after a woman has her last menstrual period. Around this time, estrogen levels drop dramatically. Though menopause affects all women differently, in general it tends to cause fat to be stored in the abdomen, rather than on the hips and thighs.
While menopause is a completely natural part of the aging process, interventions such as estrogen therapy may lower your risk of abdominal fat storage and its associated health risks.
If you have concerns, speak with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Summary: Natural hormonal changes during menopause result in a shift in fat storage from the hips and thighs to fat stored around the abdomen.
7. The wrong gut bacteria
Hundreds of types of bacteria live in your gut, mainly in your colon. Some of these bacteria benefit health, while others can cause problems.
Gut bacteria are collectively known as your gut flora or microbiome. Gut health is important for maintaining a healthy immune system and decreasing disease risk.
While the connection between the gut microbiome and health continues to be investigated, current research suggests imbalances in gut bacteria may increase your risk of developing several diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and gut disorders (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease).
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There’s also some research suggesting that having an unhealthy balance of gut bacteria may promote weight gain, including abdominal fat. In particular, having a higher ratio of Firmicutes bacteria to Bacteroidetes is associated with higher weight and visceral fat.
It’s thought that changes in bacteria diversity may lead to changes in energy and nutrient metabolism, stimulate inflammation, and alter hormone regulation, leading to weight gain. That said, further research into this topic is needed.
One randomized, double-blind 12-week study in postmenopausal women with obesity showed that taking a probiotic containing five strains of “good” bacteria led to significant reductions in body fat percentage and visceral fat. However, the small group size and uncontrolled diet posed limitations.
Further, a 2018 review of studies involving 957 people showed probiotic supplementation was significantly associated with lower BMI, body fat percentage, and visceral fat. The effect sizes were small, meaning the results may not be clinically meaningful.
While there appears to be a relationship between gut microbiome diversity and visceral fat, more research is needed to best understand its relationship and which interventions and probiotic strains may be most effective.
Additionally, in general, eating a low fiber diet high in sugar and saturated fat tends to be linked to unhealthy gut bacteria, whereas a fiber-dense diet rich in fruits and vegetables and whole, minimally processed foods seems to create a healthy gut.
Summary: Changes in bacteria diversity in the gut may be associated with higher weight and visceral fat.
8. Stress and cortisol
Cortisol is a hormone that’s essential for survival.
It’s produced by the adrenal glands and is known as a “stress hormone” because it helps your body respond to a physical or psychological threat or stressor.
Today, most people experience chronic, low-grade stress rather than acute stress from an immediate threat (e.g., running from a predator). The main stressors are psychological stress and behaviors that increase the risk of negative health events (e.g., highly processed diets, physical inactivity, poor sleep).
Unfortunately, chronic stress can lead to the accumulation of visceral fat and make it hard to lose as it can increase the production of cortisol in excess. Furthermore, higher levels of cortisol regarding food may lead some to choose high-calorie foods for comfort, which can lead to unwanted weight gain.
This can lead to overconsumption of foods high in fat and sugar, which are quick and dense forms of energy, to prepare the body for the perceived threat. Nowadays with chronic stress, this food is now used for comfort which can lead to overeating and eventually weight gain.
Additionally, chronic stress can affect other lifestyle behaviors that may lead to weight gain, such as negative coping behaviors (e.g., substance abuse), poor sleep quality, sedentary behaviors, and physical inactivity.
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The relationship between stress and weight gain also seems to work in reverse, whereby having excess abdominal fat itself can increase cortisol levels, driving a negative cycle of chronic stress in the body.
Therefore, managing your stress through health-promoting lifestyle behaviors (e.g., nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, meditation, addressing mental health) and working with a healthcare professional should be a priority.
Summary: The hormone cortisol, which is secreted in response to stress, may lead to increased abdominal fat when in excess. Practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors is a key component of managing chronic stress and keeping cortisol levels in check.
9. Low fiber diet
Fiber is incredibly important for optimal health and weight management.
Some types of fiber can help you feel full, stabilize hunger hormones, and manage hunger.
In an observational study involving 1,114 men and women, soluble fiber intake was associated with reduced abdominal fat. For each 10-gram increase in soluble fiber, there was a 3.7% decrease in belly fat accumulation.
Diets high in refined carbs and low in fiber appear to have the opposite effect on appetite and weight gain, including increases in belly fat.
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One large study involving 2,854 adults found that high-fiber whole grains were associated with reduced abdominal fat, while refined grains were linked to increased abdominal fat.
Foods high in fiber include:
- whole grains
- plain popcorn
Summary: A diet that’s low in fiber and high in refined grains may increase the risk for weight gain and higher levels of belly fat.
Genes play a major role in the risk of developing obesity.
Similarly, it appears that the tendency to store fat in the abdomen versus other parts of the body is partly influenced by genetics.
Interestingly, recent research has started to identify single genes associated with obesity. For example, certain genes may influence the release and action of leptin, a hormone responsible for appetite regulation and weight management.
While promising, much more research needs to be conducted in this area.
Summary: Though more research is needed, genetics may play a role in where we store fat in the body, including increased risk for abdominal fat accumulation.
11. Not enough sleep
Getting enough sleep is crucial for your health.
Many studies have linked inadequate sleep with weight gain, which may include abdominal fat.
There are many potential causes of weight gain from lack of sleep, including increased food intake to compensate for lack of energy, changes in hunger hormones, inflammation, and lack of physical activity due to tiredness.
For example, those with inadequate sleep are more likely to select low-nutrient options (e.g., foods high in sugar and fat) and consume more calories daily than those who get enough sleep each night.
What’s more, sleep disorders may also lead to weight gain. One of the most common disorders, sleep apnea, is a condition in which breathing stops repeatedly during the night due to soft tissue in the throat blocking the airway.
However, lack of sleep and weight gain presents a “chicken or the egg” scenario. While sleep deprivation appears to contribute to weight gain, higher BMIs can lead to sleep issues and sleep disorders.
Summary: Short sleep or low-quality sleep may lead to weight gain, including belly fat accumulation.
Many different factors can increase the likelihood of gaining excess belly fat.
There are a few that you can’t do much about, like your genes and natural hormone changes at menopause. But there are also many factors you do have the ability to manage.
Making health-promoting choices about what to eat and what to avoid, how much you exercise, and how you manage stress can all help you lose belly fat and manage the associated health risks.